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Seen and Heard Recital Review

SONGS TO TEXTS BY THÉOPHILE GAUTIER: Gounod, Fauré, Deparc, de Falla, Berlioz Bernarda Fink (mezzo); Roger Vignoles (piano), Wigmore Hall, 1pm, 6 June, 2005 (CC)

The French Romantic poet Théophile Gautier (1811-72) spawned something like 500 pieces of music. Most famous perhaps is the last piece on this recital, Berlioz’ Les nuits d’été, and indeed Bernarda Fink’s admirably planned recital included songs from different composers to the same Gautier text.

Starting from one of Gounod’s earliest songs in collaboration with Gautier, ‘Où voulez-vous aller?’ of 1839, Fink and Vignoles moulded a fascinating trajectory through varied landscapes towards the Berlioz. The Gounod is an interesting piece, the piano’s grinding opening leading to a rather simple setting (undercurrents, when they appear, are slight, while the melisma on the word ‘brise’, ‘breeze’ near the end is rather predictable). The words are to reappear in ‘L’île inconnue’ from Les nuits d’été, transformed by Berlioz’ invention. As far as Gounod was concerned, though, Fink seemed almost to be warming up, though – there was a distinct musical shift (in not lift) to the second stanza and beyond. Vignoles needed no warming up. He was consistently excellent throughout. As part of his sixtieth birthday anniversary series, his reliable, ever-musical presence was a pleasure to encounter.

Interestingly, Fauré’s ‘La chanson du pêcheur’ (‘The song of the fisherman’) sounds remarkably mature, given its date (around 1872). The accompaniment is very spare, the desperate sadness of the fisherman whose sweetheart is dead permeating the entire song. Fink’s and Vignoles’ concentration was almost visceral.

Duparc’s 1883 setting of ‘Lamento’, with its French-Wagnerian harmonies led the listener to different places than Berlioz’ setting of he same words (‘Au cimetière’, the penultimate movement of Nuits). Fink and Vignoles played out a mini-drama in Duparc’s Au pays où se fait la guerre (1870), a tripartite piece that includes some quasi-orchestral tremolandi writing for piano.

Manuel de Falla spent several years in Paris (he settled there in 1907). Gautier had a passion for things Spanish and it is to be assumed this was the attractive part for de Falla. His Trois Mélodies of 1908/9 are a curious but attractive mix of things French and things Spanish. The element of Spain in the first song, ‘Les colombes’ (‘The doves’) contrasts well with the gorgeous French Impressionism of, paradoxically perhaps, ‘Chinoiserie’ (Fink was mesmeric in the unaccompanied lines near the start of this song) before Spain wins out in the final ‘Séguidille’.

So to Les nuits d’été, so often heard with orchestral backing. Easy to hear why, of course, given that Berlioz’ masterly and sumptuous scoring provides a feast for the ears. Indeed, the repeated chords of ‘Vilanelle’ on piano came as a bit of an aural shock. Yet Fink’s ease with the language soon won this listener, at least, over. ‘Le spectre de la rose’ came across as a distant memory, while the desolation of ‘Sue les lagunes’ was obvious from Fink’s cries of ‘Ah!’ in the text alone. The refulgence of the repeated word ‘Reviens’ in ‘Absence’ of course was blunted somewhat with piano accompaniment. It was the more intimate, delicate moments of the cycle that triumphed in this voice and piano rendering, with the final ‘L’île inconnue’ bouncing its way along delightfully.

Unusually, this Wigmore concert was not broadcast live (to make way for the Beethoven Experience), but it was nevertheless live to Europe. It was a memorable recital to be sure.

Colin Clarke

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